La La Land Is ALMOST A Feminist Movie, But Falls Short

Photo: Courtesy of Lionsgate.
With seven wins, La La Land broke Golden Globe records, edging out other nominees like Lion and Moonlight, far more topically significant and socially relevant films. When Oscar nominations are announced on January 24, we can expect another cascade of nods and accolades for Damien Chazelle's nostalgic musical vehicle for Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. I get it, America wants to be entertained.

I was entertained, too. It was great fun watching candy-colored sets and beautiful people flailing their limbs, and I didn’t think about politics for two hours, which, in itself, is worth the price of a ticket and popcorn. But by the end, I was bitterly disappointed by the movie's latently sexist assumptions and its dated portrayals of gender stereotypes.

The film follows the story of two young, talented, and driven artists — Sebastian (Gosling), a musician, and Mia (Stone), an actor. The movie starts off well in terms of parity between the two; Sebastian and Mia mutually support and encourage each other in their creative dreams. In a refreshing break from Hollywood norms, their romance is fueled by genuine connection and creative ambition, not quick sex and imbalanced power. It is even fairly feminist in that Mia instigates the relationship, pursuing Sebastian several times until he allows himself to be won. But as the movie progresses, its division of focus along gender lines becomes troublingly skewed. Sebastian’s story line is devoted to his musical talent, passion, and expertise. Mia’s story, and the majority of her screen time, centers on her relationship to Sebastian and her support of his art.

We see Sebastian at his piano, creating, composing, practicing. We see his gigs and venues and meet his bosses and collaborators. We’re witness to his creative struggle and dedication up close, and we see him in at least a half a dozen shows. But the only glimpses we get of Mia acting are a few failed auditions. Mia watches Sebastian play, but he never watches her act — he doesn’t even come to her show. We learn a whole lot about jazz, and Sebastian’s passionate thoughts on it. But what do we learn about acting, and Mia's relationship to her craft?

Sebastian mansplains jazz to Mia, but when does he take the time to consider Mia's passion? The production and execution of Mia’s one-woman show remain conspicuously absent from the movie. Sebastian convinces her she can put up a show, and there are a few scenes of her typing and arranging papers, but that’s it. We don’t see Mia in Paris, where she supposedly gets her big break. We don’t know what kinds of roles she takes, or if she’s creatively fulfilled. The majority of her scenes show Mia relating — being a great girlfriend. We watch her big, loving eyes as she listens to Sebastian play, compassionately supports him in his decision-making, and attends his concerts, eventually getting lost in the crowds.
Photo: Courtesy of Lionsgate.
In the end, the only markers of Mia’s success are that she’s wearing a nice dress, gets recognized in the coffee shop where she used to work, and — in the most maddening signifier of “having it all” — she comes home to a man and a baby. This final development in the life of her character comes straight out of left field. In no part of the story do we ever hear Mia longing for a baby, or a husband. But there they are, showing viewers that this is what fulfillment and success look like for a woman.

My stomach turned when she walks into her lovely house in her high heels to that gratuitous infant playing on the floor. Do we still have to signal a woman’s success with domestic fulfillment while a man’s entails ownership of his dreams? In a feature on the movie for The New York Times, Manohla Dargis notes, “Women’s liberation and changing gender relations confused Hollywood — and still do. The movie industry excels at recycling genres, stories and stereotypes, but it hasn’t been adept at making them work with emancipated women, who no longer need men to have their happily ever after.”

Sexist undertones like these continue to persist in Hollywood and reverberate into the real world we inhabit as viewers. If you’re a woman, La La Land reminds us, to succeed you need career, looks, and family — and even then, you still probably won’t be happy, as illustrated in Mia’s wistful fantasy flashback of what could have been. But if you’re a man, congratulations! As long as you’re following your dreams, you’re doing great. Ultimately, Sebastian’s domestic life and relationship status remain a mystery to us, implying that those things only matter to Mia. Sebastian has risen above life’s mundanities into the life of a pure artist.

In one of The New Yorker's two conflicting reviews of the movie, Anthony Lane calls La La Land a “rough-edged fairy tale.” Fairy tales have harmed girls for centuries — teaching us to wait for our knights in shining armor, to sleep helpless until Prince Charming awakens us with a kiss. Let’s update the fairy tale. Does Mia really need Sebastian’s encouragement to believe in herself? Could she have mustered self-determination and confidence without him? Doesn’t her art matter just as much as his, and if so, where are the details, scenes, and dialogue to flesh that out?

Come on, Hollywood — you were so close — a strong female protagonist who doesn’t have to strip naked, who has talent, professional dreams, and creative passion, who stands up for herself.

Why, in the end, is her story a love story about a man, and his story a love story about jazz?

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